Hunger Shames

A comparative book review:

THE END OF PLENTY – The race to feed a crowded world, by Joel K. Bourne

THE REPROACH OF HUNGER – Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century, by David Rieff

Joel K. Bourne considers a world seemingly destined for even more hungry people. The planet’s human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Food production increases are barely able to match population increases. Food stocks are diminishing. The extraordinary growth of food production brought about by the “Green Revolution” since the 1960s is now levelling out due to soil nutrient depletion, a result of the intensive farming that was deemed necessary to address unprecedented global population growth. The increasing consumption of meat and dairy products, which requires and releases more carbon dioxide to produce, is exacerbating climate change. Climate change is already reducing production for farmers throughout the world.

It makes for scary reading. Bourne is happy to furnish our fears. He writes, “The world’s farmers face a . . . Herculean, task: to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. And they must do it without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends. It is the biggest collective hurdle humanity has ever faced”. Later he adds,  “we’re on a roller coaster that has just left the tracks”.

This catastrophic scenario is relieved somewhat by the book’s narrative structure. Bourne eases our worries with stories of ingenious and personable farmers doing their bit to help themselves and, implicitly, humanity.

Bourne has a passion for seeds and soil. He admires people working the land, none more so than the father of the “Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug. He describes an “iconic” image of Borlaug in a Mexican field in 1964: “His shirtsleeves are rolled high, revealing a brawny, sun-darkened right arm that scribbles in a large notebook . . . his eyes steeled on the wheat field in front of him, judging its height, vigor and yield.” Borlaug is one of many heroic figures in this story. Other hopeful characters include: a maverick American aquaculturist off the coast of Panama, an Ivy League microirrigation engineer launching his start-up in India, and corporate farmers in Ukraine looking to exploit the potential of Europe’s breadbasket.

The End of Plenty is both readable and compelling as a series of largely apolitical tales of farmers’ challenges and triumphs set against the wider environmental context.

Yet The End of Plenty does not go far enough, both in terms of analysis or prescription. As its subtitle states, this book is about “the race to feed a crowded world”. But Bourne sees the problem of hunger narrowly, as largely one of food supply, and suggests answers mainly in agricultural innovation alone.

This tendency to see the solution to global hunger through “innovative” agricultural development is the view of the “mainstream”, as David Rieff makes clear in The Reproach of Hunger: Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century. The mainstream comprises all the major players apparently aiming to tackle hunger: the United Nations, bilateral aid agencies such as USAID and DFID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank, international NGOs and even agro-industrial multinationals. Reiff argues that they share a misguided “faith” that hunger can be eradicated – for that is their aim – through “smart aid”, scientific innovation and “best practices” drawn from the private sector.

Rieff correctly asserts that this mainstream development consensus represents an ideology that simplifies the causes of hunger and underestimates the scale of the changes required to tackle it. He argues that “hope has become the default of our age, and realism . . . is now widely considered to be a moral solecism and almost a betrayal of what it should mean to be a compassionate human being.” He laments this status quo, “in which good intentions are too often conflated with good deeds and good deeds with effective ones”. He deplores “an age where it is a fact and not an opinion that inequality is deepening across the world, that power and wealth are more and more concentrated in the hands of the tiny minority of the world’s population, and that politics even in democratic countries is increasingly unresponsive”. He concludes that “all this talk about individuals making a difference [is] at best a consoling farce”.

The Reproach of Hunger is a long, rambling book filled with long, rambling sentences. But Rieff’s insight on the illusory quality of the development consensus is important. As is his assertion that hunger is fundamentally a political problem, not a technical one. But Rieff, like Bourne, fails to offer an alternative. His overriding scepticism precludes it. Disconsolate, he agrees with the philosopher John Gray that the “emancipation of market forces from social and political control” represents the only revolution currently underway.

These books – one fearful, the other despairing – offer divergent visions of the challenges we face in feeding the “bottom billion”. Bourne fears we may not produce enough food considering existing farming methods, population growth and the effects of climate change, while Rieff doubts that “philanthrocapitalism” – the present approach – offers a real solution. Yet they struggle with the same binary: either working with, or against, capitalism. Neither ventures a credible political alternative.

Alternatives do exist, however. As with water, we must defend the aim of “enough food for all” from the vicissitudes of market economics. As a norm and an ideal, ending hunger should be a cross-party political goal. This should be safeguarded legally, by enshrining rights within all state constitutions. Governments that breach their citizens’ “right to food” should be liable.

 

The Times Literary Supplement

 

Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

(edited by David Mosse)

Adventures in Aidland is a collection of articles by anthropologists looking not so much at the social effects of development policy on “beneficiaries” in the developing world, but more at the knowledge producers themselves. The book provides fascinating insights into the construction and constructers of knowledge about global poverty. It concerns the lifestyles and dilemmas of development practitioners in “the field”, a generic term encompassing locations across the entire developing world.

Given the authors’ background, the broad field of study and the structure of such an academic reference book, the ten chapters presented cover a diverse range of subjects. Naturally a sense of coherence is lost, but this is a book for non-specialists to dip into and enjoy passages of illuminating analysis.

In his introduction the editor David Mosse illustrates how “field”-based development professionals’ identities, if at all visible, are rendered homogenous by the universalizing content and transmission methods of ‘neoliberal institutionalism’, the orthodox approach to global poverty reduction. Mosse also explores the paradox of development practice that, under donor pressure, claims to promote unprecedented levels of community participation and local ownership and yet simultaneously makes itself increasingly ‘technicized’ – and therefore removed from those communities – in order to fulfil donors’ demands for accountability.

Rosalind Eyben, a former head of the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) country office in Bolivia, describes her need to take ‘reality checks’ to parts of the country to actually learn about Bolivian people and their social and economic institutions at the local level. But this mildly anthropological approach to enhancing her professional work made her expatriate  co-workers suspicious,  vaguely reiterating the same doubts that surrounded those colonial administrators who spent time in the bush a hundred years ago, whispered by colleagues to have ‘gone native’.

Dinah Rajak and Jock Stirrat’s chapter, titled ‘Parochial Cosmopolitanism and the Power of Nostalgia’ illustrates the complex, yet banal, lifestyles of many expatriate development professionals. Their argument is compelling: that while outwardly, “their peripatetic existence, their continual exposure to varying and ever-changing cultural and political milieux” and their international agenda would make development workers appear to be ‘cosmopolitan’, in reality, their insulated, isolated expatriate worlds, and the standardizing effect  of neoliberal thought, which denies difference and historical specificity to countries, makes them somewhat parochial. In extension to this, as Renato Rosaldo has argued, we learn that development professionals “mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”, bringing an “imperial nostalgia” to their imaginings of the countries in which they work.

The disillusion which many aid workers feel is caused by an acknowledged epistemic disconnect between centralized, universalizing development bureaucracies and their diverse recipient clients. By denying developing countries history, culture and specificity, aid agencies arrogantly perpetuate their own insularity. Further, they deny their cohorts on the ground two key motivations which can make them effective: humanity and curiosity. This is fascinating and under-explored territory for anthropologists and development theorists alike, making this an important collection.

Times Literary Supplement